Back cover: … “Blood Meridian is an epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America’s westward expansion, brilliantly subverting the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the “Wild West.” Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennessean who stumbles into a nightmarish world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving.”
Blood Meridian is a stomach-churning story that could very well be true . It certainly fits within the almost whispered confines of tales that drift through the forest of romanticized tales of bigger than life, better than good heroes that have decorated our literature for the past hundred years or more.
Cormac McCarthy is the most intriguing wordsmith I have ever read, bar none. One always needs a dictionary at hand to fully comprehend the narrative. It would also help to keep a fine eye tuned to pattern recognition schemes, for some of McCarthy’s words, quite a few, in fact, are compound words cobbled together to fit the niche he is flowing text across at a particular time. This can be nuanced even further by his use of near archaic syllabification and some words that are present entirely due to their grotesque, baroque, or surreal imagery and often may not be conventional words or phrases.
As one tiny and far from exclusive example, the following narrative may give a small flavor to the power of McCarthy’s pen:
“They traveled through the high country deeper into the mountains where the storms had their lairs, a fiery clangorous region where white flames ran on the peaks and the ground bore the burnt smell of broken flint. At night the wolves in the dark forests of the world below called to them as if they were friends to man and Glanton’s dog trotted moaning among the endlessly articulating legs of the horses.”
And this, from another area of the book:
“They made camp on a low bench of land where walls of dry aggregate marked an old river course and they struck up a fire about which they sat in silence, the eyes of the dog and of the idiot and certain other men glowing red as coals in their heads where they turned. The flames sawed in the wind and the embers paled and deepened and paled and deepened like the bloodbeat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground before them and they watched the fire which does contain within it something of men themselves inasmuch as they are less without it and divided from their origins and are exiles. For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be.”
“All to the north the rain had dragged black tendrils down from the thunderclouds like tracings of lampblack fallen in a beaker and in the night they could hear the drum of rain miles away on the prairie. They ascended through a rocky pass and lightning shaped out the distant shivering mountains and lightning rang the stones about and tufts of blue fire clung to the horses like incandescent elementals that would not be driven off. Soft smelterlights advanced upon the metal of the harness, lights ran blue and liquid on the barrels of the guns. Mad jackhares started and checked in the blue glare and high among those clanging crags jokin roehawks crouched in their feathers or cracked a yellow eye at the thunder underfoot.”
Another necessary reference guide for reading Blood Meridian is a Spanish to English dictionary, or a minimum college course in Spanish, as McCarthy doesn’t bother to translate for the reader. If one knows enough Spanish to “get by” this allows the text to flow nicely. If one doesn’t have a clue as to the meaning of sequences like: “Te encargo todo, entiendes? Caballos, sillas, todo.” “Si. Entiendo.” “Bueno. Andale. Hay caballos en la casa.” …
All this sounds nit-picky and whiney. It’s not. It’s simply a labor one goes through to be treated to one of the most poetic (dark, largely) prose one is likely to encounter in a lifetime of literary pursuits. McCarthy is very prolific and this is the fourth of his award winning novels I’ve read. In each case, I’ve been amazed at the author’s ability to site the reader in the local color of the period of which he writes. In The Road, it was futuristic. In No Country for Old Men, it was modern day southwestern U.S. In Blood Meridian it is 1850s Texas-Mexican border area. In Outer Dark it was early 1900s Appalachia. The one category they all fit is “tragedy.”
In each of these cases McCarthy captures the dialect one expects — no, rather, imagines — would have emanated from such characters as he selects to invade the reader’s consciousness. As far as characterization goes, you can be sure that in any of his novels there will be one or more personalities whose good luck only weighs enough to transport that character to yet another spate of bad luck.
We have become accustomed to reading stories with a “moral.” McCarthy distributes virtue among his characters in a remarkably stingy manner, perhaps laying the groundwork for building a justification for not delivering a “moral.” Or perhaps the moral is that there is no moral to particular stories in real life. One doesn’t read Corman McCarthy for happy endings. In any event one can expect a roller-coaster ride through his novels, and Blood Meridian is a particularly wild ride.
I recommend Blood Meridian for its pearl-handled stab at a near-hidden darkness, its throat-ripping grab at the very being of your conscience. 4.5 stars.
© 2008 R. Leland Waldrip